Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The Beginnings of California Literature

I’ve been reading Literature from California, a new anthology of California literature from its beginnings to 1945, edited by Jack Hicks, James D. Houston, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Al Young. The editors are working on a second volume that should span the years from 1945-2004.

The first section called “Indian Beginnings” is wonderful, particularly the creation stories from the section “Origins and the Ways of the World.” My favorite is the Yokuts tale’ “Origin of the Mountains” where crow and hawk with the help of duck build the California mountains from scratch including the Ta-hi-chi-pa Pass, the Coast Range and the Sierra Nevadas. Besides the creation stories and songs, there are California Indian love songs and stories; chants, dream poems and dance poems; poems about old age, death, and the afterlife. All in all this section is a wonderful beginning of California literature. Reading these poems I remembered my Californian Indian poet friend William Oandasan who died in 1992.

When I was publishing in 1984 my first book of poetry by West End Press, the press was also publishing a Native California poet, the late William (Bill) Oandasan, who was part-Yuki Indian and part Philippino. The Yuki Indians live in Round Valley, which is in Mendocino County of California north of San Francisco. Since at that time Bill Oandasan and I both lived in Los Angeles, I called him up. He was working at the UCLA Native Studies Center editing a scholarly magazine on Native Americans and asked me to visit him at his office, so I went. Previously my whole poetry experience was in the community: never had I been connected to any academic institution nor did I know anyone in academia. After I met Bill at UCLA, he took me around to his officemates and introduced me to the whole Native American studies staff as a young writer publishing her first book. This just blew me out. Bill became my first poet friend in the academic world.

Getting to know Bill and talking with him about poetry, I learned he was negotiating with his Round Valley Indian tribe to use a historical photo for the front cover of his book. He had founded the A Press in 1976 and edited A: A Journal of Contemporary Literature, one of the first literary magazines in the United States devoted to American Indian writers. But he was also working with free verse and fascinated by French surrealists. He was carrying on the traditions of Yuki Indians which went back thousands of years of carrying them into late 20th century literature.

We had our publication party together at Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Orange County. His published books are Taking Off (1976), Earth & Sky (1976), Sermon & Three Waves (1978), A Branch of California Redwood (1980), Moving Inland (1983), Round Valley Songs (1984), Round Valley Verses (1987), and Summer Night (1989). His Round Valley Songs, which West End published, won the American Books Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.

Besides being a poet, editor and publisher, Bill organized an all-day gathering at UCLA of Native American writers, where I heard for the first time Wendy Rose (Miwok); Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo); Luci Tapahonso (Navaho). In the audience were many of the leading Native American intellectuals in Southern California. Bill had previously lived in New Mexico, and was close to the brilliant group of New Mexican Native American writers centered around the Pueblo Indians, particularly Acoma and Laguna pueblos. Acoma at 1,000 years old is one of the oldest towns in North America.

I remember listening at the poetry reading to Bill once read his wonderful poem “Acoma” about the ancient home on the mesa of the Acoma Pueblo Indians. The poem was later published in The Remembered Earth edited by Geary Hobson (University of New Mexico Press, 1979).

by William Oandasan

For many distant travelers
The way to Acoma is merely
A four lane ribbon
Of asphalt
Squeezed in between wire
Fences and telephone lines,
Running like a scar
Across the flesh
Of an ancient landscape;
They almost never know
The old way south by north
Where you can fly today
From the pit
Of an uranium strip mine
To the sacred Sky City
Standing on top
White Rock Mesa.
Corn and ritual predate
The cradle of history there
Like a breathing shrine,
And the way to Acoma for many
Is only curiosity,
Or a refreshment stop.
But for those who still
Follow the four directions,
The way to Acoma
Is the way..

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